THE ACCIDENT occurred on an evening in July, right in the heart of New York, as Kathleen and I were crossing the street to go to see the movie The Brothers Karamazov.
The heat was heavy, suffocating: it penetrated your bones, your veins, your lungs. It was difficult to speak, even to breathe. Everything was covered with an enormous, wet sheet of air. The heat stuck to your skin, like a curse.
People walked clumsily, looking haggard, their mouths dry like the mouths of old men watching the decay of their existence; old men hoping to take leave of their own beings so as not to go mad. Their bodies filled them with disgust.
I was tired. I had just finished my work: a five-hundred-word cable. Five hundred words to say nothing. To cover up another empty day. It was one of those quiet and monotonous Sundays that leave no mark on time. Washington: nothing. United Nations: nothing. New York: nothing. Even Hollywood said: nothing. The movie stars had deserted the news.
It wasn’t easy to use five hundred words to say that there was nothing to say. After two hours of hard work, I was exhausted.
“What shall we do now?” Kathleen asked.
“Whatever you like,” I answered.
We were on the corner of Forty-fifth Street, right in front of the Sheraton-Astor. I felt stunned, heavy, a thick fog in my head. The slightest gesture was like trying to lift a planet. There was lead in my arms, in my legs.
To my right I could see the human whirlwind on Times Square. People go there as they go to the sea: neither to fight boredom nor the anguish of a room filled with blighted dreams, but to feel less alone, or more alone.
The world turned in slow motion under the weight of the heat. The picture seemed unreal. Beneath the colorful neon carnival, people went back and forth, laughing, singing, shouting, insulting one another, all of this with an exasperating slowness.
Three sailors had come out of the hotel. When they saw Kathleen they stopped short and, in unison, gave a long admiring whistle.
“Let’s go,” Kathleen said, pulling me by the arm. She was obviously annoyed.
“What do you have against them?” I asked. “They think you’re beautiful.”
“I don’t like them to whistle like that.”
I said, in a professorial tone, “It’s their way of looking at a woman: they see her with their mouths and not with their eyes. Sailors keep their eyes for the sea: when they are on land, they leave their eyes behind as tokens of love.”
The three admirers had already been gone for quite some time.
“And you?” Kathleen asked. “How do you look at me?”
She liked to relate everything to us. We were always the center of her universe. For her, other mortals lived only to be used as comparisons.
“I? I don’t look at you,” I answered, slightly annoyed. There was a silence. I was biting my tongue. “But I love you. You know that.”
“You love me, but you don’t look at me?” she asked gloomily. “Thanks for the compliment.”
“You don’t understand,” I went right on. “One doesn’t necessarily exclude the other. You can love God, but you can’t look at Him.”
She seemed satisfied with this comparison. I would have to practice lying.
“Whom do you look at when you love God?” she asked after a moment of silence.
“Yourself. If man could contemplate the face of God, he would stop loving him. God needs love; he does not need understanding.”
For Kathleen, even God was not so much a subject for discussion as a way to bring the conversation back to us.
“I too,” I lied. “I too, I need your love.”
We were still in the same spot. Why hadn’t we moved? I don’t know. Perhaps we were waiting for the accident.
I’ll have to learn to lie, I kept thinking. Even for the short time I have left. To lie well. Without blushing. Until then I had been lying much too badly. I was awkward, my face would betray me and I would start blushing.
“What are we waiting for?” Kathleen was getting impatient.
“Nothing,” I said.
I was lying without knowing it: we were waiting for the accident.
“You still aren’t hungry?”
“No,” I answered.
“But you haven’t eaten anything all day,” she said reproachfully.
“How long do you think you can hold out? You’re slowly killing yourself…”
There was a small restaurant nearby. We went in. All right, I told myself. I’ll also have to learn to eat. And to love. You can learn anything.
Ten or twelve people, sitting on high red stools, were eating silently at the counter. Kathleen now found herself in the crossfire of their stares. She was beautiful. Her face, especially around the lips, showed the first signs of a fear that was waiting for a chance to turn into live suffering. I would have liked to tell her once more that I loved her.
We ordered two hamburgers and two glasses of grapefruit juice.
“Eat,” Kathleen said, and she looked up at me pleadingly.
I cut off a piece and lifted it to my mouth. The smell of blood turned my stomach. I felt like throwing up. Once I had seen a man eating with great appetite a slice of meat without bread. Starving, I watched him for a long time. As if hypnotized, I followed the motion of his fingers and jaws. I was hoping that if he saw me there, in front of him, he would throw me a piece. He didn’t look up. The next day he was hanged by those who shared his barracks: he had been eating human flesh. To defend himself he had screamed, “I didn’t do any harm: he was already dead…” When I saw his body swinging in the latrine, I wondered, “What if he had seen me?”
“Eat,” Kathleen said.
I swallowed some juice.
“I’m not hungry,” I said with an effort.
A few hours later the doctors told Kathleen, “He’s lucky. He’ll suffer less because his stomach is empty. He won’t vomit so much.”
“Let’s go,” I told Kathleen as I turned to leave.
I could feel it: another minute there and I’d faint.
I paid for the hamburgers and we left. Times Square hadn’t changed. False lights, artificial shadows. The same anonymous crowd twisting and untwisting. In the bars and in the stores, the same rock-’n’-roll tunes hitting away at your temples with thousands of invisible little hammers. The neon signs still announced that to drink this or that was good for your health, for happiness, for the peace of the world, of the soul, and of I don’t know what else.
“Where would you like to go?” Kathleen inquired.
She pretended not to have noticed how pale I was. Who knows, I thought. She too perhaps will learn how to lie.
“Far,” I answered. “Very far.”
“I’ll go with you,” she declared.
The sadness and bitterness of her voice filled me with pity. Kathleen has changed, I told myself. She, who believed in defiance, in fighting, in hatred, had now chosen to submit. She, who refused to follow any call that didn’t come from herself, now recognized defeat. I knew that our suffering changes us. But I didn’t know that it could also destroy others.
“Of course,” I said. “I won’t go without you.”
I was thinking: to go far away, where the roads leading to simplicity are known not merely to a select group, but to all; where love, laughter, songs, and prayers carry with them neither anger nor shame; where I can think about myself without anguish, without contempt; where the wine, Kathleen, is pure and not mixed with the spit of corpses; where the dead live in cemeteries and not in the hearts and memories of men.
“Well?” Kathleen asked, pursuing her idea. “Where shall we go? We can’t stand here all night.”
“Let’s go to the movies,” I said.
It was still the best place. We wouldn’t be alone. We would think about something else. We would be somewhere else.
Kathleen agreed. She would have preferred to go back to my place or to hers, but she understood my objection: it would be too hot, while the movie would be air-conditioned. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t so hard to lie.
“What shall we see?”
Kathleen looked around her, at the theaters that surround Times Square. Then she exclaimed excitedly, “The Brothers Karamazov! Let’s see The Brothers Karamazov.”
It was playing on the other side of the square. We would have to cross two avenues. An ocean of cars and noises separated us from the movie.
“I’d rather see some other picture,” I said. “I like Dostoyevski too much.”
Kathleen insisted: it was a good, great, extraordinary movie. Yul Brynner as Dmitri. It was a picture one had to see.
“I’d rather see an ordinary mystery,” I said. “Something without philosophy, without metaphysics. It’s too hot for intellectual exercises. Look, Murder in Rio is playing on this side. Let’s go to that. I’d love to know how they commit murders in Brazil.”
Kathleen was stubborn. Once again, she wanted to test our love. If Dostoyevski won, I loved her; otherwise I didn’t. I glanced at her. Still the fear around her lips, the fear that was going to become suffering. Kathleen was beautiful when she suffered; her eyes were deeper, her voice warmer, fuller; her dark beauty was simpler and more human. Her suffering had a quality of saintliness. It was her way of offering herself. I couldn’t see Kathleen suffer without telling her I loved her, as if love was the negation of evil. I had to stop her suffering.
“You really care that much?” I asked her. “You’re really that anxious to see the good brothers Karamazov mistreated?”
Apparently she was. It was Yul Brynner or our love.
“In that case, let’s go.”
A triumphant smile, which lasted only a second, lit up her face. Her fingers gripped my arm as if to say: now I believe in what is happening to us.
We took three or four steps, to the edge of the sidewalk. We had to wait a little. Wait for the red light to become green, for the flow of cars to stop, for the policeman who was directing traffic to raise his hand, for the cab driver, unaware of the role he was going to play in a moment, to reach the appointed spot. We had to wait for the director’s cue.
I turned around. The clock in the TWA window said 10:25.
“Come on,” Kathleen decided, pulling me by the arm. “It’s green.”
We started to cross the street. Kathleen was walking faster than I. She was on my right, a few inches ahead of me at most. The brothers Karamazov weren’t very far away anymore, but I didn’t see them that night.
What did I hear first? The grotesque screeching of brakes or the shrill scream of a woman? I no longer remember.
WHEN I CAME TO, for a fraction of a second, I was lying on my back in the middle of the street. In a tarnished mirror a multitude of heads were bending over me. There were heads everywhere. Right, left, above, and even underneath. All of them alike. The same wide-open eyes reflecting fright and curiosity. The same lips whispering the same incomprehensible words.
An elderly man seemed to be saying something to me. I think it was not to move. He had close-cropped hair and a mustache. Kathleen no longer had the beautiful black hair that she was so proud of. Disfigured, her face had lost its youth. Her eyes, as if in the presence of death, had grown larger, and, incredibly enough, she had grown a mustache.
A dream, I told myself. Just a dream that I’ll forget when I wake up. Otherwise, why should I be here, on the pavement? Why would these people be around me as if I were going to die? And why would Kathleen suddenly have a mustache?
Noises, coming from all directions, bounced against a curtain of fog they weren’t able to penetrate. I couldn’t make out anything that was being said. I would have liked to tell them not to talk, because I couldn’t hear them. I was dreaming, while they were not. But I was unable to utter the slightest sound. The dream had made me deaf and mute.
A poem by Dylan Thomas—always the same one—kept coming back to me, about not going gently into the night, but to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”
Scream? Deaf-mutes don’t scream. They go gently into the night, lightly, timidly. They don’t scream against the dying of the light. They can’t: their mouths are full of blood.
It’s useless to scream when your mouth is filled with blood: people see the blood but cannot hear you scream. That’s why I was silent. And also because I was dreaming of a summer night when my body was frozen. The heat was sickening, the faces bent over me streaming with sweat—sweat falling in rhythmical drops—and yet I was dreaming that I was so cold I was dying. How can one cry out against a dream? How can one scream against the dying of the light, against life that grows cold, against blood flowing out?
IT WAS ONLY LATER, much later, when I was already out of danger, that Kathleen told me about the circumstances surrounding the accident.
A speeding cab approaching from the left had caught me, dragging me several yards. Kathleen had suddenly heard the screeching of brakes and a woman’s shrill scream.
She barely had time to turn around before a crowd was already surrounding me. She didn’t know at first that I was the man lying at the spectators’ feet.
Then, having a strong feeling that it was I, she pushed her way through and saw me: crushed with pain, curled up, my head between my knees.
And the people were talking, talking endlessly…
“He’s dead,” one of them said.
“No, he’s not. Look, he’s moving.”
Preceded by the sound of sirens, the ambulance arrived within twenty minutes. During that time I showed few signs of life. I didn’t cry, I didn’t moan, I didn’t say anything.
In the ambulance I came to several times for a few seconds. During these brief moments I gave Kathleen astonishingly precise instructions about things I wanted her to do for me: inform the paper; call one of my friends and ask him to replace me temporarily; cancel various appointments; pay the rent, the phone bill, the laundry. Having handed her the last of these immediate problems, I closed my eyes and didn’t open them again for five days.
Kathleen also told me this: the first hospital to which the ambulance took me refused to let me in. There wasn’t any room. All the beds were taken. At least that’s what they said. But Kathleen thought it was just a pretext. The doctors, after one glance at me, had decided there was no hope. It was better to be rid of a dying man as fast as possible.
The ambulance drove on to New York Hospital. Here, it seemed, they weren’t afraid of the dying. The doctor on duty, a composed and sympathetic-looking young resident, immediately took care of me while trying to make a diagnosis.
“Well, Doctor?” Kathleen had asked.
Through some miracle she hadn’t been sent out of the emergency room while Dr. Paul Russel was taking care of me.
“At first sight it looks rather bad,” the young doctor answered.
And he explained in a professional tone, “All the bones on the left side of his body are broken; internal hemorrhage; brain concussion. I can’t tell about his eyes yet, whether they’ll be affected or not. The same for his brain: let’s hope it hasn’t been damaged.”
Kathleen tried not to cry.
“What can be done, Doctor?”
“Is it that serious?”
The young doctor, whose voice was as restrained as an old man’s, looked at her for a moment, then asked, “Who are you? His wife?”
On the verge of hysteria, Kathleen just shook her head to say no.
“No,” she whispered.
“His girl friend?”
After hesitating a moment, he had asked her softly, “Do you love him?”
“Yes,” Kathleen whispered.
“In that case, there are good reasons not to lose hope. Love is worth as much as prayer. Sometimes more.”
Then Kathleen burst into tears.
AFTER THREE DAYS of consulting and waiting, the doctors decided that it was worth trying surgery after all. In any case I didn’t have much to lose. On the other hand, with luck, if all went well…
The operation lasted a long time. More than five hours. Two surgeons had to take turns. My pulse fell dangerously low, I was almost given up for dead. With blood transfusions, shots, and oxygen, they brought me back to life.
Finally the surgeons decided to limit the operation to the hip. The ankle, the ribs, and the other small fractures could wait. The vital thing for the time being was to stop the bleeding, sew together the torn arteries, and close the incision.
I was brought back to my room and for two days swung between life and death. Dr. Russel, who was devotedly taking care of me, was still pessimistic about the final result. My fever was too high and I was losing too much blood.
On the fifth day I at last regained consciousness.
I’ll always remember: I opened my eyes and had to close them right away because I was blinded by the whiteness of the room. A few minutes went by before I could open them again and locate myself in time and space.
On both sides of my bed there were bottles of plasma hanging from the wall. I couldn’t move my arms: two big needles were fastened to them with surgical tape. Everything was ready for an emergency transfusion.
I tried to move my legs: my body no longer obeyed me. I felt a sudden fear of being paralyzed. I made a superhuman effort to shout, to call a nurse, a doctor, a human being, to ask for the truth. But I was too weak. The sounds stuck in my throat. Maybe I’ve lost my voice too, I thought.
I felt alone, abandoned. Deep inside I discovered a regret: I would have preferred to die.
An hour later, Dr. Russel came into the room and told me I was going to live. My legs were not going to be amputated. I couldn’t move them because they were in a cast that covered my whole body. Only my head, my arms, my toes, were visible.
“You’ve come back from very far,” the young doctor said.
I didn’t answer. I still felt regret at having come back from so far.
“You must thank God,” he went on.
I looked at him more carefully. As he sat on the edge of my bed, his fingers intertwined, his eyes were filled with an intense curiosity.
“How does one thank God?” I asked him.
My voice was only a whisper. But I was able to speak. This filled me with such joy that tears came to my eyes. That I was still alive had left me indifferent, or nearly so. But the knowledge that I could still speak filled me with an emotion that I couldn’t hide.
The doctor had a wrinkled baby face. He was blond. His light blue eyes showed a great deal of goodness. He was looking at me very attentively. But this didn’t bother me. I was too weak.
“How does one thank God?” I repeated.
I would have liked to add: why thank him? I had not been able to understand for a long time what in the world God had done to deserve man.
The doctor continued to look at me closely, very closely. A strange gleam—perhaps a strange shadow—was in his eyes.
Suddenly my heart jumped. Frightened, I thought: he knows something.
“Are you cold?” he asked, still looking at me.
“Yes,” I answered, worried. “I’m cold.”
My body was trembling.
“It’s your fever,” he explained.
Usually they take your pulse. Or else they touch your forehead with the back of their hand. He did nothing. He knew.
“We’ll try to fight the fever,” he went on sententiously. “We’ll give you shots. Many shots. Penicillin. Every hour. Day and night. The enemy now is fever.”
He stopped talking and looked at me for a long time before going on. He seemed to be looking for a sign, an indication, a solution to a problem whose particulars I couldn’t guess.
“We’re afraid of infection,” he continued. “If the fever goes up, you’re lost.”
“And the enemy will be victorious,” I said in a tone of voice that intended irony. “You see, Doctor, what people say is true: man carries his fiercest enemy within himself. Hell isn’t others. It’s ourselves. Hell is the burning fever that makes you feel cold.”
An indefinable bond had grown between us. We were speaking the mature language of men who are in direct contact with death. I tried to put on a smile but, being too cold, I could only manage a grin. That’s one reason why I don’t like winter: smiles become abstract.
Dr. Russel got up.
“I’ll send the nurse. It’s time for a shot.”
He was touching his lips with his fingers, as if to think better, and then added, “When you feel better, we’ll have a lot to talk about.”
Again I had the uncomfortable impression that he knew—or at least that he suspected—something.
I closed my eyes. Suddenly I became conscious of the pain that was torturing me. I had not realized it before. And yet the suffering was there. It was the air I was breathing, the words forming in my brain, the cast that covered my body like a flaming skin. How had I managed to remain unaware of it until then? Perhaps I had been too absorbed in the conversation with the doctor. Did he know I was suffering, suffering horribly? Did he know I was cold? Did he know that the suffering was burning my flesh and that at the same time I was shaking with an unbearable cold, as if I were being plunged first into a furnace and then into an icy tub? Apparently he did. He knew. Paul Russel was a perceptive doctor. He could see me biting my lips furiously.
“You’re in pain,” he stated.
He was standing motionless at the foot of my bed. I was ashamed that my teeth were chattering in his presence.
“It’s normal,” he went on without waiting for an answer. “You’re covered with wounds. Your body is rebelling. Pain is your body’s way of protesting. But I told you: suffering is not the enemy, the fever is. If it goes up you are lost.”
Death. I was thinking: He thinks that death is my enemy. He’s mistaken. Death is not my enemy. If he doesn’t know that, he knows nothing. Or at least he doesn’t know everything. He has seen me come back to life, but he doesn’t know what I think of life and death. Or could he possibly know and not show it? Doubt, like the insistent buzz of a bee inside me, was putting my nerves on edge.
I could feel the fever, as it spread, seize me by the hair, which seemed like a burning torch. The fever was throwing me from one world into another, up and down, very high up and very far down, as if it meant to teach me the cold of high places and the heat of abysses.
“Would you like a sedative?” the doctor inquired.
I shook my head. No, I didn’t want any. I didn’t need any. I wasn’t afraid.
I heard his steps moving toward the door, which must have been somewhere behind me. Let him go, I thought. I’m not afraid of being alone, of walking the distance between life and death. No, I don’t need him. I’m not afraid. Let him go!
He opened the door, hesitated before closing it. He stopped. Was he going to come back?
“Incidentally,” he said softly, so softly I could hardly hear him. “Incidentally, I nearly forgot to tell you…Kathleen…she’s an extremely charming young woman. Extremely charming…”
With that he quietly left the room. Now I was alone. Alone as only a paralyzed and suffering man can be. Soon the nurse would come, with her penicillin, to fight the enemy. It was maddening: to fight the enemy with an injection, with the help of a nurse. It was laughable. But I didn’t laugh. The muscles in my face were motionless, frozen.
The nurse was going to come soon. That’s what the young doctor had said, the doctor whose calm voice was like an old man’s, having just discovered that human goodness carries its own reward. What else had he told me? Something about Kathleen. Yes: he had mentioned her name. Charming young woman. No. Not that. He had said something else: extremely charming. Yes: that’s it. That’s what he had said: Kathleen is a charming young woman. I remembered perfectly: extremely charming.
Kathleen…Where could she be now? In what world? In the one above or the one below? I hope she won’t come. I hope she won’t appear in this room. I don’t want her to see me like this. I hope she won’t come with the nurse. I hope she won’t become a nurse. And that she won’t give me penicillin. I don’t want her help in my fight against the enemy. She’s a charming girl, extremely charming, but she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand that death is not the enemy. That would be too easy. She doesn’t understand. She has too much faith in the power, in the omnipotence of love. Love me and you’ll be protected. Love each other and all will be well: suffering will leave man’s earth forever. Who said that? Christ probably. He also believed too much in love. As for me, love or death. I didn’t care. I was able to laugh when I thought about either. Now too, I could burst out laughing. Yes, but the muscles in my face didn’t obey me. I was too cold.
It had been cold on the day—no, the evening—that evening when I met Kathleen for the first time.
DAY Copyright © 1962, 2006 by Elie Wiesel